I am a PhD candidate in the school of enginerering. This question is about my dissertation literature review.

Through my review of past dissertations, I see three styles of literature review. One is a single literature chapter which has the past theories. The second, and most common due to the style of publishing three journal papers, has the literature review separated into each of the contribution to knowledge chapters (typically three chapters). The least common is a hybrid with the single literature review chapter plus literature reviews in each contribution chapter (looks like it was a three paper but did not get published so modified into a single paper dissertation).

To remind the reader and/or allow for self contained chapters, should each contribution chapter have a literature review? What should the chapter literature reviews contain? Should each chapter have a literature review even if it is repetitive from the main literature review chapter? Is it just the underpinning theories in the chapter literature reviews?

  • 1
    Have you talked to your advisor about this yet? What did he/she say?
    – Nobody
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 6:06
  • Usually we are expected to have found the answer ourself or exhausted every attempt --even then, we should decide on a best solution and be able to explain our rationale. Asking is the last thing you want to do -- tell and explain is better. Still, on review, I will find out what it should be. Commented May 22, 2017 at 6:08
  • I always thought one difference between background and literature review is context. In a review (with no own research presented), you would have a literature review. In a thesis (at least where I am around), if the literature has no relevance for your work you are not supposed to review it, making any literature review automatically part of the background/foundations/whatever you may call it.
    – skymningen
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 14:06
  • 2
    Your institution's library should have all doctoral dissertations ever approved at the institution on its shelves (or possibly in an electronic archive), so you ought to be able to see how this has been done in your department over the past few years. You might be able to find these through the online catalog, but if they aren't immediately apparent just ask a librarian for help.
    – 1006a
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 20:22
  • @1006a funny you mention that... I did, and found lo and behold my predecessors sometimes bent the rules--just because they bent the rules and got away with it didn't mean I could too: I actually didn't have a single solid example to stand on Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 3:36

2 Answers 2


There is no one universal answer to this, because it depends on what is acceptable to your advisor and doctoral committee members. That answer is not a cop-out; it is the most important answer to all questions regarding appropriate formats for your doctoral dissertation.

As some of the comments suggest, you should do the homework to find out what has been accepted in the past in your department; sometimes your advisor doesn't know which is better, so presenting prior work (in your own department) would help your advisor decide what to expect. It is also important to ask your committee members, or at least to inform them in advance of what your advisor prefers, or else you might find that they have different preferences.

If you want a universal answer, I can only offer my own reasoned perspective:

  • For a unitary thesis (that is, a book-format dissertation), I would prefer a single literature review chapter. It would be annoying to read if other chapters would repeat that same content; I think that would be completely unnecessary.

  • For an article-format thesis (e.g. three journal-style articles), I understand the goal to be that each of the article chapters would be able to serve as a standalone journal article. In that case, each one would certainly require its own literature review and repetition would be inevitable and even necessary. However, copy-and-paste repetition is not acceptable, mainly because you would need to avoid copyright infringement and multiple submission. That is, when you submit each journal article, you would be claiming that each one is completely original, and so there can be no word-for-word repetition. You would need to completely rewrite the literature review for each article using your own original words.

Again, even though that is my perspective, the only perspective that really matters is that of your advisor and your committee members.

  • have you ever tried to find your advisor and talk with them? indiana jones is easier to find after the exam /s Commented May 23, 2017 at 19:51
  • Maybe you need to bait your Indiana Jones advisor with a meeting to discuss a mysterious hidden gem that you unearthed in your literature search .... :-)
    – Tripartio
    Commented May 24, 2017 at 7:21
  • solved: got shit faced and just wrote it--everyone loved it, I heard brilliant and genius murmured at the defense--the problem was I was 2/3 between a unitary and article-format so it was something in between, I made the lit review an article chapter by itself Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 3:40

"Should each chapter have a literature review even if it is repetitive from the main literature review chapter?"

No. Avoid putting the reader to sleep unnecessarily.

  • in terms of pragmatics -- this might be the best answer and gave me the pathway to follow Commented May 23, 2017 at 19:53
  • ^ confirmed, worked--signed Dr. Peterson Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 3:41

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